A fragmented identity: An investigation of the struggle of identity through language
in Julia Alvarez How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Establishing ones identity is a complex problem that everyone eventually faces. The majority of social science textbooks will claim that a persons identity is a result of particular social and, possibly, biological factors that combine together to form this nebulous concept of personality, character, or identity. In order to simplify this word and make it useful within this discussion, we can understand it as the means an individual has of defining and comprehending who she is and how she fits into the society surrounding her. From the social perspective, we typically scrutinize other people in order to either find evidence of similarity between ourselves and our image of the others thus identifying with that image, or to find evidence of difference thus identifying our selves against that image. Furthermore, we seek the surrounding culture for judgment of these images. For instance, a little girl and a little boy playing in a bathtub will both come to the obvious conclusion that they are different from one another. As they struggle to classify their differences in the society the boy will come to the conclusion that his difference is valued and sets a particular standard within a patriarchal society. In contrast, the girl will discover her difference is not privileged that she is defined by the culture as all that the boy is not; she is a non-boy. The girl, in turn, has an image of herself as a lack of being a boy. Thus, the existence of specific standards by which everyone in the society is judged results in a situation of social confusion for those people who dont meet the standards. The complexity of establishing an identity is exacerbated by this social confusion. We can think of the confusion brought on by this situation in terms of identity crises. That is, the individual is faced with a number of identities that do not necessarily correspond with one another and she feels a resulting sense of fragmentation and disorientation.
Julia Alvarez provides discourse on this problem of identification in her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. In a similar manner as the little girl in the bathtub, the Garcia girls face the difficulties of being female in a patriarchal society. However, their difficulties are increased twofold by the fact that the girls also face problems of being immigrants from the Dominican Republic to a completely new culture in the United States. Their lives involve a number of confusing images which they attempt identify with; however, the identity that results from this confusion of being the foreigner, the other, the non-boy, is an inadequate fragmented one.
One of Alvarez methods of discussing the fragmented identity is provided by her treatment of language within text. We can consider language as a means of identification in the sense that our thoughts and, hence, our minds are comprised primarily of words as is our mode of communicating with each other. The character, Yolanda, suffers from a fragmentation at the very fundamental level of language identificationher name. Her full name, Yolanda, seems to represent a whole identity, but, we are told, Yolanda is nicknamed Yo in Spanish, misunderstood Joe in English, doubled and pronounced like the toy, Yoyoor when forced to select from a rack of personalized key chains, Joey (68). Yolanda has no control over the misunderstanding of her name. People call her or identify her according to their own interpretations of the language that serves as her individual name. In response to her mothers pronunciation of Yolanda in Spanish she hears her pure, mouth-filling, full-blooded name and she becomes whole in this one word (81). But then, it was inevitable, like gravity, like night and day, little applebites when Gods back is turned, her name fell, bastardized, breaking into a half dozen nicknames, thus she is shattered and these names that are illegitimate devalue her name and person (81).
Yolonda tries to rectify this situation by becoming a poet and a student of language. She is trying to control the language that she has been fragmented through. However, the moment when Yolanda is signing her breakup letter to John and she thinks of signing it, Yolonda, but her real name no longer sounded like her own, so instead she scribbled his name for her, Joe she becomes lost in her confusion and fragmentation (79). Her resulting breakdown is the consequence of her identity crisis because she simply cant reconcile her incoherent means of identification. In order to recover she needs to save her body-slash-mind-slash-soul by taking all the slashes out, making her one whole Yolanda (80).
This situation speaks of the experience of the hyphenated American. The Asian-American, the African-American, the Spanish-American are labels that involve two separate identities which are both connected and separated by the slash. In effect, there are two identities competing for recognition within one person. The American component of the label may have more value when one is in America, but this does not nullify the other ethnic component. The hyphenated American must try to find a means of satisfying both sides of the slash and deal with her misrepresentations within a culture that she is both a part of and apart from.
Speaking in an entirely different language then the majority of people in the culture causes the individual to be largely separated and cut-off from the culture. The individual is hindered by invisible boundaries that obstruct her recognition as a part of the culture. Moreover, she is marked as different and seen as outside of the culture she is in. She is both inside and outside of the culture. This serves as another example of the confusion and the resulting fragmentation of identity that accompanies the experience of the immigrant. Even after Yolanda learns English she is still unaware of the intricacies and nuances of the language. She has to be taught all the word plays and double meanings in order to engage with the American society on a more intimate level (93). And more importantly, to lose her status as a foreigner.
All of the Garcia girls find means of identification from their native land in the Dominican Republic as well as their new culture in the United States. They speak Spanish and learn to speak English. Yet, as the title of this novel indicates, the girls seem to find reconciliation of these two cultures by eliminating traces of their native origin. Losing their accents also suggests that they are losing the hyphenated label and identifying only with the American culture. Alvarez is not necessarily suggesting that a person must sacrifice one culture to acclimate to another; but rather, that as a matter of progression, a person may have to make sacrifices in order to claim an identity in the midst of fragmentation. Each of the four Garcia girls has some form of identity crisis and each one deals with it in different ways. Whether we refer to the sickness of the body, the sickness of the mind, or the desperate attempts to control the factors surrounding them, all of the girls are infected by the disharmony between conflicting identities. Alvarez does imply that confusion, fragmentation, and identity crises are inherent parts of being an immigrant and living in a culture where one does not exhibit those particular characteristics that are valued and set as standards. When an individual does not measure up to social standards she becomes a sort of non-being within the society because she represents that which the standards are not. Thus, the immigrant must find some means of reconciling her identity with either or both of her cultures.
Alvarez offers a variety of other ways to understand this struggle, but language seems to speak* the most clearly and consistently within the novel of the invisible boundaries that we have between others, and ourselves as well as the boundaries or slashes we have between different identities in ourselves.